On this, the last day of Momalon’s five-for-ten, Theme: Yes, I turn to a right of passage that I tried with all my heart and soul to say “no” to, but failed.
Today marks the 36th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, that strange day when, as a little Jewish boy, I had to stand up before the congregation and, with a squeaking voice say, “Today I am a man.” Hah!
I begged my parents to let me out of the whole ordeal, but my father said, “My father got Bar Mitzvahed and hated it, I got Bar Mitzvahed and hated it and you’re going to get Bar Mitzvahed and you’re going to hate it.” To me it was like being in some fraternity that I couldn’t remember pledging.
The whole being Jewish thing always confused me. Firstly, it was deadly boring. Secondly, my knowledge of Jewish history suggested that everyone hated the Jews and wanted to kill them, and so it was a bit hard to understand why this was something to embrace and amplify. Third, when I looked around the world, from Dirty Harry to James Bond, the cool guys were not Jews; abandon all hope of cool, you who join the Jewish Youth Group. As an ardent non-joiner, my cultural and religious heritage was the last thing I wanted to join.
My Buby, on the other hand, went to a real temple, not a bourgeois fashion-show temple like my parents (where on Yom Kippur, you left early and went out to lunch at someplace like Jonathan Livingston Seafood—and who is to atone for naming a restaurant like that?). Even though Buby’s temple could be boring, it also pulsed with a spirit that was nowhere to be found in my parents’ pretentious and empty excuse for a temple with its bellicose and absurdly stern rabbi who seemed to fashion himself after Lenin.
On the morning of my Bar Mitzvah I recall covertly pouring myself a scotch from my dad’s liquor cabinet to steady shy nerves. I was mere hours from manhood, and men drank scotch, that much I had learned about the world.
The only thing I actually remember about my Bar Mitzvah is staring out into the crowd and seeing one brown face in a sea of white. That was Lulu, beaming at me with a smile so wide and real and full of God that I carry it with me to this day. Kind, tall, wise Lulu had pretty much raised me, always being around when my mom was off at luncheons and running around doing nineteen sixties lady-things.
Lulu had told me that she was Jewish—from the “lost tribe,” but beyond all religion, she was a great spirit, a spirit Mother. She had held my hand and walked me to the corner to catch the bus to preschool, she let my guinea pig hide in her apron pocket, she knew how to give the sort of hug that actually made things okay.
And while my Bar Mitzvah was not much of a spiritual experience for me, Lulu’s presence there foreshadowed many interesting later experiences; it hangs as a sort of inverse mirror of one of the most powerful dreams I ever had, coming around the time of my Buby’s death in my twenties.
In this dream I am in a church in Harlem and I am the only white person in a sea of African American faces. I had been to churches in Harlem for Gospel shows, which were amazing enough, but in my dream the music and the spirit are so strong that I literally rise out of my seat, floating up until I am hovering by the balcony. I feel like a fish out of water, yet the energy of love and acceptance all around me is so transporting that I feel more at home, more welcome and more connected with spirit than ever before. I get scared about being so high above the seats and I am somehow able to will myself into a calmer state, gently floating back down to my seat.
That was more than twenty years ago, and as I try to feel my way forward in terms of spirit I feel connected with many cultures—Celtic, Native American, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, Inuit, Mayan, Christian, Muslim, Hindu… but particularly African. There is something that I resonate to deep in my soul, and in my collective memory, which is at once Jewish and African.
Many dreams, friendships and synchronicities have only further reinforced this feeling (like a certain “bromance” my kids tease me about with a gifted musician friend I met in LA, who is originally from the inner city in Detroit, but who was raised Jewish by a mom who emigrated from the south, bringing her Jewish roots right along with her). I am particularly honored when my African American clients (often movers and shakers) let me, the white Jewish guy, help them with their issues, but particularly when I get to assist with the most sacred of tasks: parenting.
I read a fascinating non-fiction book last year by a writer named Tudor Parfitt, The Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is a sort of real-world Indiana Jones story. In the end he finds himself deep in the heart of Africa with the Lemba who appear to be “the lost tribe” of Israel. Their rituals, while highly guarded, eventually reveal themselves to be a mix of classic Jewish rites and prayers along with more traditionally African motifs. When Parfitt had genetic tests run on cheek-swabs from the Lemba, they came back with as much Jewish genetic material as Chassidic rabbis living in Israel.
African Americans and Jews have had an interesting relationship. Heschel and Martin Luther King were connected with each other and fought together for civil rights; yet there have also been tensions, racism and divides. Chicago was a very segregated city when I grew up, yet my first movie job ever was working as a lowly Production Assistant for Fred Williamson, football star turned actor/director. At the end of a long day holding a walkie-talkie out on Rush Street while he filmed in a bar, Fred invited me into his trailer, and, despite his towering African American presence, towel around his neck against the thick August humidity, said, “Let’s kibitz.”
We ended up hanging out and chatting about film school and the biz with him sharing his hard-won wisdom. On subsequent jobs, no director ever took an interest in me like that, and that small moment stays with me, teaching me not how to be a filmmaker, but how to take an interest in people and be kind and encouraging.
After the money came and before it went again, my parents once took us on holiday to some grand resort in the south where up until just before that time Jews were not welcome (my dad explained this on the way and I could only think, “Why on earth are we going there?”) We certainly didn’t fit into this very white and WASPy place (aspirational travel?) where presidents had once arrived in private sleeper cars while at the same time our relatives were running from Cossacks or being herded into cattle cars. I mean, really—WTF were we doing there?
I found myself riding the elevator with an old African American bellhop who’d probably been working there since the nineteen twenties; he turned to me, looking piercingly into my eyes, and with warm gentleness said, “You’re an Israelite, aren’t you?” I was fifteen and it had been two years since I’d stepped foot in a temple, but I acknowledged that I was indeed an Israelite. I imagined that many people at that hotel may have wondered as much, but he was the only one who spoke any truth to me. It was perhaps the only moment on that trip that I connected with anyone and, for a fleeting afternoon elevator ride, I felt seen, kindred and at home.
We all come from Africa. I don’t know what color Abraham was, or Jesus, or Buddha, but I do think that they all embodied the same message of unity. I really learned “parenting” from Lulu, and between she and Buby, who are my spirit guides in this regard, life goes full circle, being cared for and caring for until we learn the ever unfolding eternal lesson: we are one. To me, the Jews are not “the chosen people,” but unity is the chosen consciousness—the consciousness that makes this world. Our big choice is to choose love. To this let’s say: Yes!
So, on this day when once (and quite ridiculously) I said that I was a man, I choose instead to say that, just like you, today I am a human being—standing with you in the service of our world, and all its collective children.
Shalom, Namaste, Ubuntu, Bruce